Edinburgh researchers find Scotland's lower voting age has boosted election turnout
Younger first time voters catch the habit for later elections
Scotland's lowering of the voting age to 16 has had a lasting positive effect on election turnouts, a new study claims.
Academics at Edinburgh and Sheffield universities found that if people voted for the first time when they were 16 or 17 they were more likely to continue voting at subsequent elections. The voting age was cut from 18 to 16 for the 2014 independence referendum and the new lower age was then extended to Scottish Parliament and local council elections. But UK general elections, where the rules are set by Westminster, still have a minimum voting age of 18.
The researchers used voting habits from the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections to assess for the first time the long-term impact of allowing votes at 16. They found that in the 2021 elections, people who had voted at age 16 or 17 in the 2014 referendum – the first group to be able to do so – went to the polls in greater numbers than those enfranchised from age 18. But those who were 16 or 17 when they voted for the first time at later elections also turned out in bigger numbers. And those who were able to vote as 16 or 17 year-olds were also more likely to continue voting into their 20s, the researchers said.
But the study also found that, despite an initial boost, lowering the voting age did not lead to a longer-term increase in other forms of political engagement, such as taking part in demonstrations, signing petitions or writing to MPs or MSPs. And they said it made no longer-term difference to socio-economic inequalities in political engagement – better-off people were still more likely to get involved in protests and petitions and also more likely to vote.
The study recommends strengthening access to political literacy classes in schools and providing opportunities for democratic debate across all age groups in places such as workplaces and educational institutions.
The lead author of the study, Dr Jan Eichhorn, from Edinburgh University’s School of Social and Political Science, said: “Allowing 16- and 17-year olds to vote was a good decision taken by the Scottish Parliament. Many younger first-time voters retain a habit of voting and participate in greater numbers than older first-time voters. The findings strengthen the case for enfranchising younger voters across the UK to improve long term voting behaviour. But more can be done. Making sure all young people receive great civic education that includes learning how to discuss political issues well, could help reduce persistent social inequalities in turnout.”